The importance of minor gestures.
…if a more inclusive and democratic vision for art is our project, then we cannot possibly rely on winning validation from bright, white rooms and full-color repros in the art world glossies. To tap into and promote the lived aesthetic of a largely “non-art” public – this is our goal – our contradicion, our energy. Group Material wants to occupy the ultimate alternative space – that wall-less expanse that bars artists and their work from the crucial social concerns of the American public. – Group Materiali
…precarization also means the experience of dealing with simultaneous multiplicities, with the heterogeneity of ascriptions and interpellations. Different singularities are not constituted through individuality, through inseparability, but rather through that which they share with others, what they take part in, to what extent, and how they become common with others, how they become a constituent power. – Isabelle Lorreyii
At the close of a recent study and personal trip between Amsterdam, Brussels, Cairo, and London, I attended a seminar at a prestigious Curatorial Studies program in the UK. The lecturer was established in the field and his talk on the development of international biennials was predictably peppered with the latest critical discourse and witty personal anecdotes. Specifically focused on the rise of Manifesta, the roaming European biennial, all of the expected and crucial topics of territorialization and the east/west European divide in terms of class, politics, economics and geography were covered. It was a familiar monologue, and falling in line with too many in similar positions, these tensions were met by this curator with a helpless, nonchalant “but what can we do?” shrug.
Many of the students shared my discomfort at the ease with which these issues were not just glossed over, but abandoned in favor of a resigned complicity in agreement that this is the way exhibitions are now done, this is the face of art in the 21stcentury, and the global mess is such a mess that real solutions do not exist within our current vocabulary. Speaking openly in objection to the speaker’s topic and approach, the students identified the crux of the problem immediately. The pitfall of curating in a so-called global context is the eradication of attending to the very specificity, potential, and relevance of context itself. For what is the global anyway? What is there within such a broad notion to pin down, to extract as particular, or that may define this abstract concept in the first place? The students continued by elaborating their own disjointed relation to another such exhibition, one that occured in the geographically and culturally distant Istanbul in 2010. They articulated that this exhibition was both too recent to discuss historically, too far away for many of them to have visited, and the location too different from the experience of the mostly British students for them to have a nuanced understanding of how the Western concept of the international biennial format translated.
The brash and high-velocity import and export of culture created by globe-trotting ‘parachuting curators,’ (dropping down where and when they please to promote the biennialization of art) depends on convincing those in the contemporary art matrix that geographic context is the locus, despite the fact that no one behind these master plans dare sneak a glance over their shipped-in white walls. A local engagement limited to a mere façade ignores the very subjects it purportedly exists for, thereby actively resisting the possibility of an open and truly critical dialogue by virtue of the blatant failure and complete and utter disregard for this shortcoming. This is not to say that the curator interested in working internationally need be an anthropologist – that field has its own setbacks and contradictions. Yet this state of affairs raises some serious questions about professional responsibility, ethics, and even defining why it is that we engage this thing called art in the first place.
To form a thoughtful opinion of an exhibition and understand the experience of it, particularly one that hinges delicately on acute cross-cultural awareness and communication, depends in part on a lived knowledge and personal, careful attention, no matter how in depth the catalog or the number of reviews. When the discourse around exhibitions – and exhibitions themselves – no longer depend on an experience of them, when those deemed most relevant are known mostly through buzz-words and anecdotes generated within the vacuum of academia and among the frequent-flyer elite, they exit the realm of art in any fulfilling, consequent or palpable sense. Instead we are asked to formulate a view based on a press release and the bias or agenda of others, drawing upon these collected scraps as if they were our own memory. Potentially resulting in a false or lacking analysis, this process may, ironically, serve to perpetuate the flaws in a linear read of history so attacked by the deconstructionist theories which fill art academic journals and syllabi.
One such buzz-word and popular summation of the current artists’ state of socio-economic affairs, “precarity” should be understood as existing on a sliding scale defined by political state and location. To offer an extreme example, there is a danger in equating the precarity of a Dutch artist losing their government issued artist subsidy with that experienced by a citizen in Cairo surrounded by violent protest. Thus is the real problem of a cursory ‘global’ address in which differences are left unacknowledged or under-explored so that any coalition formed is doomed to be fatally unbalanced and superficial. This requires re-thinking what we mean when say that everyone has a turn to speak, and raises serious concerns about the soft power of a ‘global art’ as a form of propaganda or weak hegemony. Worse, once careerist motives and the social affect of the cultural over-producer usurp and dismantle the value in or validity of the psychological and physical spaces of careful observation, reception and consideration so key for a critical literacy, the cynic, convinced not that ‘anything is possible’ but that ‘nothing matters,’ is proven the victor. This is the challenge to the relevancy of contemporary art once it functions along this undefinable and unfounded ‘global’ plane – to recover and activate the agency and power afforded by the potentiality associated with the grey and dark matter of art.
According to Hito Steyerl,iii the economic politics of art are thoroughly embedded within all contemporary art practice, though that is often the one political topic that goes undiscussed in the field. Institutional critique did a good job at pointing out issues within the institution, but now, in our thoroughly post-fordist mode of production, fraught with invisible, unstable hierarchies and an insistence on fractured modes of working, the institution is no longer necessary as a target. Foreshadowed in the work of Michael Asher, the economic and socio-historic implications of a physical or cultural context must be explored. A former student under the artist-mentor recently recalled a studio visit in which Asher insisted on limiting their discussion to the origin and manufacture of plastic elements incorporated within the in-progress work. In this logic, the oil industry, art producers, gallery assistants, independent curators, pedestal builders, and tourism bureaus are inevitably linked so that their economic chain must be followed. We have entered a new stage of institutional critique that is no longer about the building but the broader, macro-culture economic matrix of the capitalist machinations of art.
The current generation behind many younger ‘alternative’ spaces consider inhabiting a different economic model as a radical act in itself, so that operating a gallery outside of traditional business structures is a political gesture intended to function within a broadly defined art world and market. It has been asked by those of the previous generation “Where is today’s political art if it is not exhibited in alternative spaces?”iv One response is that because political issues are now publicly discussed in commercial galleries and major institutions there is no longer the urgency for alternative spaces to address them, as was the case in the 1980s with regard to the AIDS crises, for example. Of course, mere institutional visibility does not prove the efficacy of such conversations, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that truly confrontational political messages in these venues are in fact silenced by their participation and implied support of the very powers they attempt to protest.v Despite the institution’s continued status as suspect, it is now seen as one among many points of entry into a politically charged negotiation of visibility and exchange. It is the very circulation of the work of art and of the cultural producer as such in the greater (art) economy that is the subject of current provocations by these alternative spaces.
Yet once our ‘alternatives’ are structured not only to identify and address the forces they seek to operate against, but also act in symbiosis and sometimes in direct dealings with them, where does this leave room for entirely other options? If all of these efforts are hopelessly enmeshed in the web of cultural and financial capital, what then is left of other strategies? And what could it mean to simply opt out?
The bleak answer is that opting out of dominant economic systems may simply invite the ability of late capitalism to commodify everything, particularly if we consider “cultural capital” to be interchangeable with monetary capital. This equation, depended upon by the elite to maintain their wealth and status, and driven by the erroneous received notion that being ‘allowed to’ produce work and display it should be enough compensation since ones’ cultural capital is hypothetically eventually fungible, is largely responsible for the financial precarityvi of artists today. It is possible that dealing in cultural value and exploiting the baseless scarcity and unfounded valuation characteristic of the logic of late financial capitalism is a way of operating outside of the accepted capital structure, employing its dark side to achieve a goal because of it. Jan Verwoert takes this proposition further by stating that as cultural producers we are the feeding tube for late capitalism, which puts us in a position of power.viiThis scenario at least allows for the safety net of never fully dismissing the codependency of nourishing the hand that also feeds you. But the arbitrariness, lack of rules, unpredictability, and ultimate dependency on an other in a position of greater financial power as qualities intrinsic to cultural capital illustrates the precise failure of this false trajectory.
The notion that there is empowerment to be claimed through embodying the very contradictions inherent to the mechanism of cultural capital can’t help but seem a fantasy even more conflicted than the initial “myth of bohemia.” Historically, in its sentimental version, this myth is characterized by a figure hopelessly devoted to and willfully impoverished by his artistic practice and lifestyle. But this life is also merely adopted as a rite of passage towards the ultimate and desperately sought after embrace by the academic and cultural cannon.viii In these attempts to act as an embedded subversive agent of cultural capital or as the performing bohemian, the self-proclaimed outsider places himself on the fence in order to gain attention from the gatekeepers who, periodically patronizing, may once in awhile let him inside. These examples do not present the artist as a feeder of late capitalism with a nurturing or authoritative status, but rather, prove his complicity in sustaining a parasitic, suffocating force. At the very least, the emancipatory myths of cultural capital and bohemia come with such severe contradictions and required concessions as to override their usefulness as a conclusion we can live with. In the face of these extremely personal, and professional conflicts, a shrug and a sigh of ‘but what can we do’ remains forever unsatisfactory and utterly irresponsible.
The active resistance or negation via witholding that is implicit to ‘opting out’ relates to the critical question posed by the earliest conceptual art, ‘does one need an exhibition?’ Implied in that query is the fact that context and circulation are material or critical elements that form content. The early publications of Seth Siegelaub that replaced the physical exhibition with a catalog – an easily disseminated object not dependent on a physical or geographic location – pose a sound scenario whereby the location and space is irrelevant to the reading of the work, except insofar as it is important that we know that the relevancy of (a) space is being challenged.
As Jens Hoffmann noted in his response to Anton Vidokle’s essay “Art Without Artists?” the rise of the independent curator as a figure challenging the organizational and economic structures of art runs parallel to the development of institutional critique.ix While institutional critique is often criticized for its dependence on the very apparatus that is the subject of its interrogation, what differentiates the curator Hoffmann describes is the active and intentional disruption of actual hierarchical dynamics of the art world. By challenging accepted notions of authority this figure enacts broad critiques through a series of small ruptures. As Hans Haacke has made clear throughout his working life, one may control the terms of their production and its circulation by designating the routes of capital through which it travels, as demonstrated by a paper trial of contracts which prevent his work from ever being sold at auction or displayed in art fairs. For Haacke, the solution for claiming autonomy and agency over the forces of cultural and financial capital and the ever lingering dilemma ‘what can we do’ is a matter of selective participation and unflinching rejection of the suspect. Institutional or organizational structures and systems of support must always be considered, as do those who will encounter, form, and continue whatever dialogue, action or presentation occurs. As in art, where every detail can have meaning, a message may be transmitted in the structure and strategy we choose.
The hopeful flip side of ‘nothing matters’ may lie in the search for a productive – as opposed to ennobled – precarity in which everything is indeed possible. Echoing Verwoert and expanding on Asher’s challenge, Steyerl explains that if art now pervades every aspect of design, visual, and consumer culture of which we are all a part, and if we as the “culture class” are the most economically mobile and loudest – visually and intellectually – than we are also already inhabiting a position for potentially gaining broader power and affecting change.Practicality and art collide in this scenario where utility can also occupy the space of art, and vice versa. There are numerous practices, historic and contemporary that demonstrate this, including Siegelaub’s The Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer And Sale Agreement (1971); the hydra-headed educational, curatorial, albeit problematically profitable entity that is e-flux, and its complementary currency project Time/Bank; and the artist-run barter network ourgoods.org, among others. Targeting the cultural and financial economies of which they are a part, such efforts resemble artistic gestures of institutional critique and social practice while serving practical functions, thus operating within an economy of use value (utility) and of meaning independent of utility (art). They are also conceived of by producers who do not necessarily call these projects artworks, but whose individual artistic practices – curating to crafting – are inextricably linked. This is perhaps where operative definitions or limitations may not only break down, but are unnecessary due to the savvy usefulness and profound meaning that allows these projects to traverse artistic, legal, social and economic worlds. While it certainly matters if they are ‘successful’ according to both art and design criteria, at the same time it does not, for that is the important point of inhabiting this world of ‘art’; ideally, they are not primarily judged by results calculated on the basis of statistics and surveys, and the outcome is specifically of limited consequence. These examples are perhaps most interesting for the questions they pose, and it is their status as art – among many other categories – that keeps those questions in suspension, anticipating our shifting interpretation and their own vacillating relevance.
Perhaps the solution out of this maze is to embrace our dual roles as artists and citizens and to take advantage of the tools available to us in one position in order to better our place in the other, moving towards a collective, or coalition of individual autonomy. This does not call for a bipolarization of our actions, but rather takes advantage of the mobility allowed in inhabiting multiple positions at once and remaining unfixed. To capitalize on its implicit potentiality presents one strategy of an empowered precarity.
About this time last year I was at the closing party for an artist-run Brooklyn gallery that had been a pioneer in what is now an infamous arts neighborhood, but which had fallen victim to the raising rents of the rapid gentrification their space was in part guilty of inspiring. The gallery’s program focused on exhibiting the work of younger artists and selling it at prices that allowed it to be affordable for the other artists in the neighborhood. The space also featured a store section selling crafts and records made by those same local artists, also priced to be sold within this burgeoning creative community. During a brief ‘eulogy’ by the owners at the closing, the question was shouted out from the packed crowd “Where do we go next?” To this a few other attendants replied by calling out the names of other gentrifying neighborhoods, until one onlooker said, “We need an army!” To which the owners replied, “This is the army, you guys are the army, we are the army.” Months later the space revamped itself as an official 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. Despite the access to the private grants and public funding this status allows them, they have struggled to find another more permanent home.
A friend and member of an established art collective explains that the pitfall of many such self-proclaimed radical endeavors is that the over-democratization of their operation leads to under-productivity. Founded by a small group of close friends and recent art school graduates, the collective in its early years operated very successfully because, he said, it was only the founders who were involved, and they believed in an agreed upon set of core principles and a shared aesthetic. However, as the collective stands now, after years of members floating in and out with but a few of the founders remaining, it functions in reality more as a group of people who happen to have studios in the same building. When asked to produce a project as a collective, their supposedly non-hierarchical decision making process – where everyone has equal say in every decision – results in choosing the scenario that is “offensive to the least amount of people.” We agree that these do not sound like productive, compelling, nor even romantic grounds for making art.
In the middle of my stay in Amsterdam, I met a small group of Dutch natives and Swedish expats who I was connected to through a mutual acquaintance in New York. Making fast friends, we immediately got to talking about the projects we were working on, and I explain that I’m in The Netherlands to do some freelance archival work but am mostly there because I’m interested in the Dutch system of funding for the arts, whose nearly full public subsidy puts it in direct contrast to the US system. I mention the two collective galleries I’ve co-founded, and learn that one of the men at the table had been a part of a now defunct art space run by an artist and curator in Amsterdam that was legendary in my mind for its anomalous status as completely independent of government financial support, a scenario nearly unheard of in Holland. I ask him everything I can think of and am instantly moved by the sincerity and humor with which he speaks of the project, and miss my own close involvement with similar art spaces. Apparently the basement where the gallery had been was donated to them by a landlord who was trying to fend off squatters, and as a physical space was just as special as what went on inside. Once the anti-squat laws were enacted in the city however, the landlord decided to evict the gallery in the hope of securing a profitable renter. He asserts that it was important to operate the space without outside funding, to maintain it as autonomous, fluid, and informal while well-considered as possible. The venue also needed to be free of market concerns, and so nothing was ever for sale. Exhibitions took any form, from traditional painting and sculpture to posters and performance, it never mattered the scale or the production level, just that something happened, even when it was a failure by most measures. The space was and remains important because it happened in its moment and was of its moment, a labor of love, outside of other concerns, necessarily temporary.
v In 2011 the art collective Liberate Tate, who protest the involvement of oil companies in the funding of culture and at the Tate Modern and Tate Britain specifically, were invited to the museum to discuss activism only to be prevented from addressing the British Petroleum support of the Tate itself. Anecdote shared in correspondence with Temporary Services. More information at http://halfletterpress.com/store/index.php?main_page=product_info&products_id=257
vi While a wildly popular buzz-word as of late, “precarity” is useful here for its very tangible socio-economic ramifications. Indeed, the very over use of the term ushers in yet another fear that it will lose its crdibility as a presssing social issue.